Closer. It’s one of the toughest jobs in baseball, in all of sports even. Or so we’re led to believe. What is it about getting three outs in the ninth inning that’s so different from getting three outs in the seventh? Why do managers make situational decisions in the seventh (e.g. bringing in lefties to face lefties) but insist on using their pre-assigned “closer” in the ninth? What if the situation in the seventh is far more dire than that of the ninth (e.g. if the three, four, and five hitters are due up or the bases are loaded)? Why isn’t the best pitcher on the mound in the biggest spots?
I’ll tell you why: saves, the only statistic that changes the way the game is played, as well as the way it’s financed. A save situation is the only time a manager makes a decision based on arbitrary numerals rather than what’s going to help his team win. The only time he’d do it on purpose anyway. To quote Michael Lewis in Moneyball:
The central insight that led [Billy Beane] to turn minor league nobodies into successful big league closers and to refuse to pay them the many millions a year they demanded once they became free agents was that it was more efficient to create a closer than to buy one. Established closers were systematically overpriced, in large part because of the statistic by which closers were judged in the marketplace: “saves.” The very word made the guy who achieved them sound vitally important. But the situation typically described by the save—the bases empty in the ninth inning with the team leading—was far less critical than a lot of other situations pitchers faced. The closer’s statistic did not have the power of language; it was just a number. You could take a slightly above average pitcher and drop him into the closer’s role, let him accumulate some gaudy number of saves, and then sell him off. You could, in essence, buy a stock, pump it up with false publicity, and sell it off for much more than you’d paid for it.
Before I really get started I suppose I should give full disclosure. I’m a Mets fan, woe be upon me, and that’s why this stuff’s on my mind. For some reason Terry Collins insists on calling Frank Francisco his closer. Frank Francisco, he of the 8.59 ERA and 2.05 WHIP. He of the three losses, 14 earned runs, eight walks, and 22 hits in just 14.2 innings pitched. He is our closer, and nobody else. All those questions in the first paragraph, yeah, I’ve been shouting them at my television over the past few days.
Yet it’s not those numbers that most horrify me, it’s these: two years and $12 million, or Frank Frank’s contract. It’s because of them that Francisco remains in his position, “for now.”
Like so many other closers, Francisco has but one man to thank for those numbers. That man is Jerome Holtzman, the sportswriter who invented the save in 1960, leading to it becoming an official statistic in 1969.
There was a time when the best relievers were called “firemen,” and they pitched when they were needed most. Bases loaded with one out in the eighth? That’s fireman time. Closer time is the ninth inning, with a three run lead and nobody on base, which has lead some to call it “the most overrated position in sports.”
Those who believe in the sanctity of the closer will tell you the ninth inning is different, there’s more pressure, it gets in your head the way no other inning can. To them I say this: bullshit. Dave Smith of Retrosheet conducted a study of late-inning leads from 1944 to 2003 and an additional 14 seasons prior. He found that regardless of strategy, teams that enter the ninth inning with a lead win 95 percent of the time. The figure doesn’t even vary all that much, the high was 96.7 percent (1909), while the low was 92.5 percent (1941).
Granted, those figures apply to any lead, not just “save situations,” so they’re not really relevant to this discussion, right? Wrong. Smith calculated the figures for those scenarios as well, and they’re not all that different. Going into the ninth inning, a team ahead by one run wins 85 percent of the time, if they’re two runs up it’s 94 percent, and a three-run lead gets you 96 percent.
The problem for most teams is that they obsessively save their closer for the ninth, he might go a week without seeing action during a losing streak. As a result, they lose in the middle innings. The Mets have the exact opposite problem. Their fireman situations often come in the ninth inning, but only because Francisco creates them. They save the guy they think is their best reliever, because he’s making the most money, and waste better pitchers like Bobby Parnell, Tim Byrdak, and Jon Rauch in the middle innings. Now, the Mets think Francisco is their best for a reason, and maybe he is. But he’s not their best right now, and until he is there should be someone else on the hill in critical situations, regardless of what inning it is.